This New iOS 13 Feature Will Make It Easier Than Ever to Get Online

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There are so many cool new features in iOS 13 that it can be overwhelming. Apple only went into detail on a handful of them when it announced iOS 13 on stage at WWDC last month, while briefly touching on a few others, but of course there’s a lot more hidden in iOS 13 for early beta testers to discover, including a wealth of small but really nice UI improvements.

For the most part, Apple continues to work to make the end user experience as smooth and seamless as possible, and it seems that it’s putting more effort into iOS 13 than it has with other recent major updates, from intelligent Share Sheets that allow you to quickly and easily share photos and links with your favourite contacts to Bluetooth audio sharing to make it easy to listen to music with a friend, along with smoother Sign In With Apple, a new swipe-capable keyboard, major CarPlay enhancements, and just a generally smoother and more polished UI — almost everything in iOS 13 seems designed improve the quality of life for the end user and allow the experience of using an iPhone to feel even more natural than it ever has before.

So it’s no surprise that Apple is also addressing the oft-cumbersome process of getting onto Wi-Fi in both iOS 13 and macOS Catalina with new features that will make the process of joining hotspots so seamless that you’ll almost forget it’s there.

Auto-Join Hotspot

Apple has offered a Personal Hotspot feature on its iPhones for almost ten years now, and it’s a great way to get online with your Mac or Wi-Fi-only iPad, and for those with unlimited high-speed LTE data connections is probably preferable to using a public hotspot as it’s more private and likely provides much better bandwidth than your local Starbucks.

Originally, connecting to your iPhone’s personal hotspot from your Mac or iPad required going into your iPhone Settings app to get the Wi-Fi password, and then punching it into your client devices. Apple greatly simplified this a couple of years ago by allowing a one-click connection from devices that share the same iCloud account, which we thought was great and extremely frictionless, but now Apple is taking it a step further by allowing your devices to automatically join your iPhone’s Personal Hotspot whenever an internet connection is otherwise unavailable.

How It Works

On macOS Catalina, you’ll get a prompt the first time you don’t have a data connection asking you if you want to use your iPhone Personal Hotspot by default, and if you say yes, then your Mac will automatically activate Personal Hotspot on your iPhone and join it in the same way as any other Wi-Fi network, allowing you to guarantee that you’re always online with a minimum of fuss.

Also tucked away under Settings, Wi-Fi in iOS 13 is a new option to Auto-Join Hotspot, which is joined by a corresponding “Ask to Join Personal Hotspots” checkbox in macOS Catalina’s Network System Preferences. For iOS, there are three options — Never, Ask, and Automatic — which will allow you to choose how you want your iPhone or iPad to behave when no nearby Wi-Fi networks are available but a personal hotspot is. On macOS, it’s simply a checkbox that basically means “Never” when unchecked, or “Automatic” when checked.

With more and more users getting high-speed data plans with high, or even unlimited usage, the idea of being able to simply default to using your iPhone personal hotspot no matter where you are is going to be a huge boon to making the whole online experience considerably more frictionless, and for many users will eliminate the need to consider a cellular-capable iPad.

Captive Hotspots

Unfortunately, it’s less clear if these features will address a big frustration with using an iPhone on public hotspots over the years — dealing with “captive networks” — those hotspots, which frankly, is almost all of them — that require you to either sign on, or tap an “Agree” button through a web portal before you can actually go anywhere.

To be fair, Apple already led the way in making the process much simpler several years ago, when it added a Captive Network Assistant — a feature that automatically brought up a web browser view to allow the user to log in as soon as a captive network was detected, rather than having to fumble around in Safari.

While this was really handy, there was one particular problem it didn’t solve, especially for iPhone users. Due to the iPhone’s ability to auto-join Wi-Fi networks — even Captive Networks — it was possible for users to find themselves in places where they would lose coverage without realizing it. For example, if you had your iPhone set to auto-join a Starbucks Wi-Fi network, then anytime you were anywhere within range of a Starbucks, your iPhone would hop onto Wi-Fi, preferring it over LTE, while not actually being able to connect to the internet at large unless you pulled your iPhone out of your pocket and unlocked it in order to see and acknowledge the Captive Network sign-on screen.

While Apple has tried to address this in more recent iOS versions by trying to maintain a cellular data connection in these cases, it can still sometimes result in missed emails or iMessages, and the only way to reliably avoid this situation is to ensure that you never set your iPhone to automatically join “captive” hotspot networks.

In theory, the Automatic setting could allow iOS 13 to handle the captive network authentication page automatically in order to get your iPhone (or iPad) authenticated onto the hotspot; while this most likely wouldn’t work for situations where an actual username and password is required, since most captive networks only require you to click an “Agree” or “Join” button to continue, it’s something that Apple could pretty easily handle, especially for the known captive network portals found at extremely popular chain coffee shops and restaurants.

Of course, ultimately it’s our hope that more businesses will simply follow Apple’s lead from its own retail stores and simply let users join their Wi-Fi networks without all of the captive network nonsense — especially when the process these days is little more than clicking a button. However, it seems that many organizations still want to do this, either for marketing/advertising reasons (to let you know you’re using their network), or for the more debatable legal concept that you’re theoretically agreeing to their terms of service before using their network.

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